Margaret Tolbert leaned over the rough wooden railing at Lake Alice, pointing at a spot near the water’s edge. Sure enough, a soft-shelled turtle stretched its long neck cautiously above the murky lake, inspecting its surroundings with beady eyes.
Walking around the lake, Tolbert, 69, pointed out various native plants along with her favorite spots to see fireflies or alligators. Tolbert has spent many days at Lake Alice since moving to Gainesville at 13.
“People are naturally drawn to a wilder part of campus,” she said.
Tolbert has owned a house close to Lake Alice for over 30 years, she said, and has witnessed many of the lake’s ups and downs. She’s witnessed a decline in the lake’s biodiversity since the 1990s. In the past several years, she’s also noticed more algae blooms.
Tolbert attended a Lake Alice watershed management workshop in the Straughn Center Oct. 4, one of three similar workshops hosted in the last month. The workshops are the first step in an initiative to develop a comprehensive watershed management plan with Lake Alice in mind. A watershed is a downhill basin where stormwater or other runoff drains.
Sixty percent of all stormwater on UF’s campus drains into the lake, which has suffered a long history of mismanagement and poor infrastructure.
A project team of seven people from UF lead the management plan. In addition, a steering committee of 29 representatives from UF or partner organizations provide input for different aspects of the watershed. The final plan isn’t expected to be finished until the end of the Spring semester, project team manager Linda Dixon said.
“It’s about a variety of projects,” Dixon said. “And just really trying to set a vision for the lake.”
UF hired Wetland Solutions Inc., an environmental consulting firm, to make specific recommendations for watershed management, as well as contribute to community engagement, Dixon said. The university's contract with the firm is worth $650,000.
Wetland Solutions will also update the current stormwater model, evaluate potential flooding and erosion sites and define maintenance needs, the firm’s vice president, Scott Knight, wrote in an email.
“This project will make recommendations to improve the management of stormwater from the raindrop to the Lake,” he wrote.
The watershed management plan aims to address common problems that have plagued Lake Alice for decades, one of those being departmental management. No single department at UF is in charge of the lake. This is a concern for community members who feel the issues related to Lake Alice don’t receive enough attention.
Kim Tanzer, an architect and retired UF professor, lives close to Lake Alice. During her walks around the lake in past years, she would often see visible problems such as an algae bloom or a diseased tree.
Without a department to manage the lake, Tanzer encountered difficulties with getting in touch with someone who can address her concerns, which included calling three or four people before seeing any action taken.
“There was nobody,” she said. “I didn’t know who to call.”
Tanzer said she hopes the watershed management plan will lead to UF owning its responsibility to the lake and assigning authority to one department. However, Tanzer said it’s unclear whether the proposed watershed management plan will actually be enforced. A comprehensive plan would mean thousands of UF staff workers having to change their behavior.
“There have been ups and downs in how well [the lake has] been cared for,” she said.
Tanzer, who is part of the steering committee, said she represents a community that’s been fighting to protect Lake Alice for decades.
Former UF President Stephen O’Connell announced a plan to drain Lake Alice and build a highway known as Lake Alice Loop Road in 1969. Hundreds of students, faculty and Gainesville residents protested in response, which led the university to cancel the plan three years later.
Lake Alice came under fire again in 1987, when UF proposed dorms and parking lots to be built on the Bat House field across the street. Tolbert was a member of the advocacy group dubbed “Alice’s Friends,” which spearheaded the movement to end the project from the mid- to late-1990s.
Tolbert remembers attending a cabinet meeting of former Gov. Lawton Chiles in Tallahassee, where Alice’s Friends petitioned to protect the integrity of Lake Alice. Gov. Chiles moved to protect the lake in 1998, and UF canceled its construction plans.
“At the end… the people have spoken,” Tolbert said.
The algae blooms that Tolbert and other residents have noticed could be due to Florida’s increasingly hot summers, UF soil and water quality, professor AJ Reisinger said. Reisinger, also a member of the steering committee, said the recent summer season was unusually dry, which can create stable conditions for algae to grow. However, he added, he doesn’t have data to prove or refute that hypothesis.
“The fact that there are multiple anecdotal reports of [algae] suggest that there’s probably something there,” he said.
Without a department to manage Lake Alice, there’s been a historic lack of water quality testing. The gap in testing leaves many residents like Tolbert concerned with the state of the lake’s water quality.
Charles Cichra, a UF professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences, has been testing fish and water quality in Lake Alice for 35 years. Cichra said the lake and its organisms are healthy, according to recent data. However, all of his data is handwritten on sheets of paper and organized in thick folders, which makes it highly inaccessible to the public.
Cichra, a member of the steering committee who will retire at the end of 2023, hopes that once someone takes charge of Lake Alice his data can be digitized and made accessible.
“It’s a tremendous database,” he said.
One of the main goals of the watershed management plan is to fix current problems with stormwater infrastructure, UF urban stormwater management professor Eban Bean said. Pipes are too old or too small, which can lead to pollution getting into Lake Alice. Flooding on campus also becomes more likely.
Instead of sticking an individual band-aid on problems when they pop up, the stormwater management plan will look at infrastructure on campus as a whole, said Bean, who is also a steering committee member. The plan may also change future UF construction, he added.
Concrete sidewalks and most buildings on campus are impervious to water, meaning stormwater in the watershed has nowhere to go except Lake Alice. Green infrastructure could take the load off of the lake, Bean said.
Permeable pavements, which are designed in a honeycomb shape, allow for stormwater to absorb naturally into the soil as it flows. Rain gardens, which are low-lying and grow plants that absorb rainwater, can also reduce the flow.
“If we’re actually going to have an impact on preserving the jewel of campus, we really need to take a holistic approach,” Bean said.
At the watershed management workshop Oct. 4, Teagan Young, a 26-year-old environmental horticulture PhD student, placed colored sticky notes on boards with other attendees. Written on each sticky note were participants' visions of Lake Alice's future.
While Young said she hopes UF will protect wildlife and reduce construction near Lake Alice, she said she is skeptical about whether the university will fully implement the watershed management plan once it’s completed. She fears if proposed solutions are too expensive, or other problems on campus take higher precedence, UF's commitment to the lake will fade.
“I know the harm that can happen when unfiltered water goes into lakes and how that can affect the environment,” she said.
For Young, an ideal solution is to educate those who live and work in the watershed. Young wasn’t aware she lived in the watershed until recently and she said encouraging people on campus to be aware of their impact on the lake is important.
“There isn’t enough information out there,” she said.
Contact Kylie Williams at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KylieWilliams99
Kylie Williams is a second-year journalism major and the Fall 2023 environmental enterprise reporter. Outside of the newsroom, she can be found baking or watching reality TV.